Positive side-effects

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"These days, nobody seems able to 'keep it in their pants' or honour a commitment! Raising the question, is marriage still a viable option? I'm ashamed to admit that I myself have been married four times, and yet I still feel that it is the cornerstone of civilisation, an essential institution that stabilises society, provides a sanctuary for children and saves us from anarchy."

This was Raquel Welch's response on CNN to this month's fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the pill in the US. Her somewhat internally contradictory argument (she loves marriage so much, she's done it four times!) is that the advent of oral contraception has led to the breakdown of "family values" and rampant promiscuity. She is not alone in putting that case. Tory politicians such as Iain Duncan Smith have argued against making contraception more available to girls, paradoxically claiming it will lead to higher teenage pregnancy rates.

The pill - is there any other commodity known by its form alone, "the biscuit", "the drink"? - is one of the most scrutinised drugs in history. A major world study of 46,000 women followed for nearly 40 years was released this March. It found that women who take the pill are less likely to die prematurely from any cause, including cancer. Yet recurrent scare stories in the press and from politicians have created myths, which persist, driving some women to stop taking it, risking unwanted pregnancy.

The pill has been a site of ideological debate since its approval in 1960 (it arrived in Britain a year later). It has been both celebrated and blamed for bringing about a sexual revolution and liberating women. Women have always found ways to limit childbirth, but the pill meant that for the first time women could control their fertility without having to consult - or even tell - a man. The impact was clear: in 1960 the average US woman had 3.6 children; by 1980 this figure was less than two. As Loretta Lynn put it, "All I've seen of this old world/Is a bed and a doctor bill/I'm tearin' down your brooder house/'Cause now I've got the pill."

The religious right had a major problem with this newfound control - they blamed the pill for separating out sex and procreation. But the sexual revolution was already beginning among college students in the 1950s and the Kinsey Report released in 1953 showed that half of the (married) women studied had had premarital sex. The pill made women's choices easier and free from the risk of unwanted pregnancy. It changed the way women could think about their expectations and plan their futures.

Social changes brought about by the Second World War and the postwar boom meant that spaces were opening up for women to work and study as they had never done before; the pill facilitated these opportunities.

But the pill wasn't universally welcomed on the left - some feminists doubted the motives of male scientists seeking to "control" women's fertility and allow men to "sleep around" without consequences. But this is missing the massive positive impact it had in enabling women to control their own fertility and to decide to have sex without fear of pregnancy.

Women's movements and the changing social and economic factors brought about a transformation in women's lives. The pill and the right to legal, safe abortion enabled that transformation.

Fifty years on the control that women gained over their lives is under attack. The role of the family remains essential to capitalist production - so the role of women is still secondary. In the US arguments over abortion access dominated the healthcare debate. It is worth noting that when Viagra was approved US insurance companies jumped to include it in their coverage: 50 percent of major insurance packages will cover the cost of Viagra; the figure for the pill is just 33 percent. Men's sexual needs are rated more highly than women's right to control their own bodies.

Here in Britain the newly-appointed equalities minister, Theresa May, has consistently voted to reduce the time limit on abortion and Channel 4's decision to broadcast an advert for abortion service provider Marie Stopes has provoked a furore on the right.

Sex is all around us, but not in the liberated form many in the 1960s envisioned. Rather we are bombarded with porn-like images on billboards, pole-dancing exercise classes, and a pressure to "perform" our sexuality like a product on the marketplace. Despite the availability of many forms of contraception, good advice and information are clearly not getting to young people. Only 57 percent of 16 to 19 year old women use any contraception at all. The fight today is to defend the gains of the 1960s and challenge the ongoing backlash, the "new sexism". Women's bodies are not their destiny.